This week in crazy: students punished for riding bikes to school in Michigan

When you live in a compact, walkable town like Belmont, its easy to forget that many, many other communities across the country are what you might call “car bound.” They’re sprawling, decentralized, with poor access to critical services (libraries and town government, groceries, shopping, schools, public transit) and lacking even the basic infrastructure, like sidewalks and bike lanes, to support citizens who choose to go car free. No surprise, also, that in these communities the collective memory of  things like walking or biking places or riding the bus has disappeared, making those once normal activities seem foreign or downright dangerous.

Thus, the news item that flashed across my computer screen today about high school seniors in Michigan being punished for riding their bikes to school.  The back story here is that this was part of an annual tradition called “Student Walk” day, that was often accompanied by senior pranks and vandalism. This year’s class decided to do something positive and healthy, so about 60 of them hopped on their bikes and rode to school en masse.

They might have been better off toilet papering some trees, given the reaction of their principal once they reached the high school. I quote:

“[Principal Katie] Pennington said the ride put students in danger, tied up traffic and prevented staff from getting to school. If you and your parents don’t have sense enough to know your brains could end up splattered on Three Mile and Kinney, Fruit Ridge, then maybe that’s my responsibility,” Pennington said. “…Get your butts home. You’re not participating in senior walk today,” Pennington was captured saying on a student cell phone video.

The students who participated received one day suspensions and missed the traditional last walk through the hallways at Kenowa Hills high school. Add to that articles like “Why Johnny Can’t Ride” from the recent issue of Bicycling magazine, about a legal challenge to Saratoga Springs, NY’s “no biking to school” (huh??!) policy.

Obviously Belmont is a different story. However, its not a stretch to say that bikers (if not walkers) are a minority in our public schools, and especially in our elementary schools. I’m not sure what policy is now, but I do know that the school administration does have reservations about elementary aged children riding to school (though not middle- and high school aged kids) and has refrained from putting bike racks at the elementary schools lest children start taking the hint and hopping on their two wheeler to get to school. Given the skyrocketing rates of obesity in children in the U.S. – a topic tackled brilliantly by the new HBO documentary “Weigh of a Nation,” I think its worth revisiting all of these policies, which have kind of grown up in the last 30 years – often with good intentions all along, but that end up promoting a sedentary lifestyle.